The trouble with a No Impact Planet

China is rapidly expanding, but the concern about its environmental impact is misplaced


The trouble with a No Impact PlanetOutdoorsy types have for ages practised no-impact camping, with its charming motto, “Take only pictures; leave only footprints.” The rationale is not complicated: the central conceit of going camping is you are entering the “wilderness,” a realm free of civilization with minimal evidence of human activity. If you vacate your campsite and leave a bunch of used flashlight batteries and empty Chef Boyardee tins lying around, it kinda spoils the effect for the next group. In short, no-impact camping is the only way to make the experience sustainable for everyone.

But this idea, that what matters to sustainability is the effect our activities have on our future welfare and our descendants’, is one we often forget when it comes to thinking about the economy and the environment as a whole. Which is a bit weird, since the Brundtland commission, convened by the UN in 1983, explicitly defines a sustainable economy as one “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But lately, environmentally concerned folks have taken to treating low-impact living as a virtue in itself, with the hope of humans leaving no footprint on earth at all serving as a utopian ideal. The trend has led to a number of increasingly extreme stunts in lifestyle minimalism, including the Compact, a project that began when some environmentally conscious friends in San Francisco decided to go an entire year without buying anything new, and the popular 100 Mile Diet, which was started by two Vancouver writers.

Now comes No Impact Man, in which a writer named Colin Beavan convinces his wife and daughter to spend a year in their New York City apartment depriving themselves of all mod cons, including electricity, newspapers, even toilet paper. Writing in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, Elizabeth Kolbert tore the No Impact Man book to shreds, and the just-released No Impact Man documentary has received similarly bad reviews.

And for good reason, since Beavan is an idiot. His experiment is full of pointless exercises that are totally disconnected from any actual environmentally sound agenda. In a typical example, Beavan climbs 124 flights of stairs in one day—no elevators—but plugs in his laptop at a local café to write.

You don’t need a degree in logic to spot the contradictions in No Impact Man. But the underlying intuition—that the sum of our consumption and emissions should ideally net out to zero, regardless of their ultimate effect—remains widely held. It has been transposed recently into the idea that the activities of businesses or other organizations (the Vancouver Olympics, say) should be carbon neutral, and it won’t be long before we start hearing about the “No Impact Corporation.”

Starbucks is probably a good contender to head down this path. My local outlet recently put up posters advertising the company’s ongoing attempts at making the world a better place for everyone, but they have cleverly built the campaign around the guilt-trippy slogan, “Everything we do, you do.” (Translation: our impact is your impact, so if Starbucks pollutes the earth, it’s your fault for shopping here.) Starbucks is absolutely right: the environmental footprint of any corporation is ultimately just the collective footprint of its customers, whether it sells coffee, consumer electronics, or gasoline. All consumption is personal consumption in the end.

There’s no question we should be concerned about the sustainability of our activities. But the problem with the “no-impact” meme is that it embodies such a crudely literal and materialistic conception of what that involves. So we worry about the exhaustion of fossil fuels, metals and minerals, the depletion of arable land, the shortage of suitable landfill space, when what we should really be worried about is whether living standards are going up or down. Britain used up entire mountains worth of coal in the 19th century. That resource is largely exhausted now, but so what? We got the Industrial Revolution in exchange, something that continues to pay serious dividends.

A lot of the recent concern about the environmental impact of the rapidly expanding Chinese economy is similarly misplaced. Yes, it is a dirty and inefficient expansion right now, but it will become less so as the economy matures. In the meantime, the high levels of pollution and emissions are probably a necessary trade-off for a country that needs to modernize as quickly as possible.

Far from compromising the needs of future generations, for centuries now our activities have steadily made life better, by any reasonable set of measures, for a geometrically increasing number of humans.

The truth is, humans make a huge footprint on the earth. We could never be the “no-impact species.” And the real question is, why ever would we want to be? What we really want is for that impact to have a positive trade-off, making our lives better not just immediately, but for generations to come. If the past is any guide to the future, there is little reason to think that’s not possible.


The trouble with a No Impact Planet

  1. Don't worry…Be happy. La… la…la…la, la, la, la. Don't worry…Be happy.

  2. Well said Mr. Potter. I think that much of the green movement is based on guilt that, with the rejection of religion, has no outlet. Sacrifice must be made, so greens sacrifice their comfort like ancient ascetics. Environmentalism often manifests itself like a religion. It answers all the same questions that most religions do: where did we come from, what is our place in the world, how do we account for evil, how to we compensate for evil, etc. I wonder if it will ever actually be acknowledged as such?

  3. Here's something you might enjoy. The GPC and the GPO are both anti-nuke for "environmental" reasons. But they've also been arguing nuclear facilities are too expensive (using Darlington as an example – one that the environmentalists and the economy delayed etc. driving up costs). Never do they acknowledge the reduced GHGs from nukes.

    So, check out one of the sweet deals their "issues advocate – GPO" and "Shadow cabinet/critic GPC" are touting. Solar power on your roof paid by your neighbours. And money in the bank. Bad, bad nukes! Hello sunshine, the earth says hello.


  4. I don't usually give a close reading to column structure, but I'm starting to wonder if you've got a bit of a formula since this so closely resembles the one about generations that annoyed me so much:
    2/3 of the column is background info, before you make your point and throw in a wild and extreme example to either preface or conclude it. I mean, we shouldn't worry about emissions growth in China because the whole no-impact thing is misguided? Sorry, what?

    There's definitely a point or two in there somewhere, 'cause yes, the no-impact idea is a somewhat overboard and yes, we absolutely need to take into account the positive effects of the growth in living standards in developing countries. But, making a connection between the two after spending the vast majority of the column talking about things like the 100 mile diet and guilt trips at Starbucks?

    In an 11 paragraph column, you finally get to the point in the 8th paragraph and offer only a half-paragraph about the Industrial Revolution as support to what you're actually trying to say. Everything before it is background, everything after it is there to illustrate your point and conclude the piece (with that bit about China thrown in for good measure).

    I find your blog posts so much more readable and enjoyable. I mean, I read this article 'cause I was hoping there might be something interesting to be said (and certainly, there's a lot of interesting things to be said on the topic of environmentalism vs. development, especially in countries like China and India where the standard of living has improved so much and will continue to improve dramatically and 'cause there is some interesting and readable) but at this rate I'm going to start treating your columns the same way I do Steyn's: I'm just there to watch the train wreck.

  5. What is the alternative to toilet paper?

    • Obvioulsly, you've never travelled to some Arab countries. It's the left hand and a container of water.

  6. Either you are being deliberately provocative, or you really do not understand the current facts of life on earth. You think that the tradeoff is worthwhile because you do not see how far the "modernization" of economies has already exceeded the capacity of the planet to assimilate waste. This exceedance, measured by many other 'reasonable sets of measures" is already making life a lot worse for humanity. If you understood this connection, you would not claim that life has been steadily been made better.

    Yes, the "no-impact" proposition is silly and impractical. There have always been extreme positions taken at both ends of any environmental debate, which is probably a healthy phenomenon. In this instance, however, we, as a species are clearly not reaching even moderate goals to collectively prevent environmental and social impact. The science on climate change, species extinctions and resource depletion has been conclusive for decades, yet we are clearly struggling to alter course. It doesn't help to suggest that business as usual is still OK. The past is NOT a guide to the future.

  7. As I read your article, it appears as if you are trying to state that we as humans should continue to do what we do because someone in the future might fix the mistakes that we are neglecting now. I'm not saying I support everyone's attempt at being green, but there is a lot of good stuff being done. In the world right now we simply do not have the means to deal with all the waste we are creating and the only way to deal with such a problem is to start taking action now.

    That 'No Impact Man' may have been taking things a little bit far, and doing things that appear to be contradictory. Using your example: climbing the stairs and not using the elevator, while still plugging in his laptop. Those two things contradict each other, but think about this: What if he had used the elevator AND plugged in his computer? More waste. He cut out at least one of those two things, and every little bit counts.

    Take a look at the smog over any major city, and tell me that smog is healthy for all the people who breathe it on a daily basis, and tell me beyond any reasonable doubt that that smog is not responsible for any health issues. The meaning I am pulling out of your article is that none of this pollution matters right now and we should continue to push industrial activities despite their obvious negative impacts on us as humans and our planet Earth, just so we can make our already rich lives even better yet. Not only make our lives better, but then we can just leave a bigger mess for someone else to clean up.

    I'm not saying I support environmentalists or everything that they do, but treating the world with care is not a bad thing. It is downright irresponsible to continue living in the way that we are. Take some accountability and realize the effects of what you are doing and do something to fix it. Do not just sit around and wait for someone else in the future to do it.

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